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Posts Tagged: Internet

Progress Bars: An Exercise in Being Patient

by Adrian Patience

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, I remember our first computer was an Atari 400. The console had a keyboard built into it, and it had a top loading slot where cartridges could be inserted. The back of the unit had a serial port for connecting peripherals. We had the Atari 410 tape drive that used audio cassettes to record programs and save files, but you could also buy software on cassettes.

As crude as this hardware is in comparison to today’s technology, I still think that it was rather brilliant to store software on audio cassettes…but I digress. Despite the 410’s aforementioned brilliance, it had one major deficiency…it was slow. I remember that my Mom and Dad had bought me this Mickey Mouse game on cassette, and nobody could ever figure out how to get it to load. Eventually the cassette/the 410 tape drive where dismissed as being defective.

One day, in an attempt to curb my growing boredom, I decided to connect the 410 tape drive and give the Mickey Mouse cassette another go. Having exhausted all of my cartridge games, the only game I hadn’t played was the Mickey Mouse game. I put the cassette in, rewound it, and pressed play. The tape played through, and the stopped at a certain position. This was the same result everybody else got when they tried to get this game to load. After 15 minutes looking at the cursor on the screen nothing had happened. By this time I had drifted away (daydreaming). I was probably thinking about how great it would be if I could actually play this game. After about 45 minutes to an hour the Micky Mouse game had loaded, and the iconic mouse’s face was displayed in 8-bit glory on my screen. As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with the 410 or the cassette holding the software, but rather the machine was so slow that this was how long it took for the program to load. Everybody had been so used to the nearly instantaneous load time of the game cartridges that nobody thought that it would take longer for the tape to load. Granted, I found this out by accident, but I learned a valuable lesson that day…have patience. All good things come to those who wait.

I relay the above childhood story only because I think it directly relates to the next portion of this article. Progress bars, download windows, CD import screens, and loading screens are ubiquitous in modern day computing. Irrespective of what computer, gaming console, tablet, netbook, or smart phone that you have…progress bars will be familiar to you. Whether or not you ignore the progress bar, or you eagerly watch it in anticipation for your download/process to finish; the progress bar has an impact on your computing experience and on your life. After recently downloading a 1.49 GB file, I started to reminisce about how waiting for computers has affected my life. I remember when I had a Pentium 100 MHz PC in 1996 that had a 28.8 baud modem that would download at 2.8 Kilobytes per second. Downloading even the smallest of files from the internet was a time consuming and unwelcome chore, but most times I would simply zone out and think while the file transfer was being received. Downloading gave me time to organize my thoughts, and think deeply about various things–mostly school work at that time. Fast forward to today where I’m able to download at 768 kilobytes per second, and I only really have to wait when I’m downloading files that are in excess of 500 megabytes. Now waiting for downloading/loading is almost a thing of the past because there really isn’t much waiting to be done–with the exception of some PS3 games that load files to the PS3 hard drive. Computers and broadband internet have gotten so swift that you only get the opportunity to think when downloading really large files.

I might seem out of date with today’s generation that expects everything that is computer/internet related to be performed instantaneously, but I think that something is lost with everything being so expeditious–not that I want to go back to 28.8 baud modems. This relates somewhat to my having read Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows.” I have written a review about “The Shallows” in a previous post so I won’t go into it in detail here, but Carr’s main thesis is that the rapid pace of information technology is ruining our brains’ ability to think deeply and thoughtfully about something for a prolonged period of time. While I agree with Carr on many points, I would argue that progress bars and having to wait for a process to finish could be our last bastion of hope in salvaging what is left of deep cognitive thought.

The progress bar reminds us that in order to get something we have to be patient; something that I think is totally lost on many in our postmodern times. I find this quite important because it proves that technology merely aides us to achieve efficacious results. That the real work is still done by a person who has the ability to patiently think though a problem and develop a creative solution. Humans have cognitive abilities that extend far beyond the finite realm of computing, and we should not deprecate those abilities. Who knows…while staring at a progress bar somebody might have an ah-ha moment, and discover a new game-changing idea or innovation that could once again transform the world.

I realize that some might consider this to be too idealistic. I’m sure some readers are thinking “a game changing idea coming from some guy zoning out looking at a progress bar…yeah right!” While I’m sure I can’t change your mind, I’ll just add that I have had some really significant ideas develop while zoning out to a progress bar. In fact, many parts of this website were conceived while downloading HD episodes of the “Engadget Show” whilst zoning out to the progress bar.

Whether you agree, disagree, or think that this article is pure rubbish…I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Please feel free to leave a comment below. : )


Posted April 13th, 2011

Categories Internet, Technology, Thoughts  Tags , , ,

Thoughts on “The Shallows”

by Adrian Patience

I just finished reading “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. I think it is an important text given the rapid rate of technological advancement in our postmodern world. I will try to not give away too much of the book’s details because I think that everybody should read it for themselves. I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll cover the points that I found interesting. The main idea that is suffused throughout the text is that our use of the internet/technology is distracting us from being able to think deeply in a sustained state of concentration. This kind of deep thinking is what has helped mankind reach our current technological level of sophistication. As the book’s narrative progresses, Carr gives us examples from past philosophers and cultural theorists (Friedrich Nietzsche and Marshall McLuhan) about how technology itself–not the technology’s content–effects how we think and develop cognitively. Carr also provides empirical examples of cutting-edge neuroscience research that further supports his claim that technology is distracting us and limiting our intellectual abilities.

We tend to take our digital lives for granted; we use computers and the internet on a quotidian basis all the while thinking that these high-tech devices are enhancing our lives, intelligence, and ability to multitask effectively. As Carr points out…this couldn’t be further from the actual truth. Carr leads us to the conclusion that true understanding can only be achieved by thinking about one concept at a time for a sustained period of time. Books allow the human brain to be able to reach this level of true understanding because a book forces you to concentrate on one concept at a time in a methodical and linear manner.

The web provides an antithetical experience to the act of reading a paper book. It encourages continuous digressions from one subject to another, from one medium to another–text to images to video to links. In other words, our brains are unable to process and transfer all of these disparate snippets of information from our short-term memory (working memory) into our long-term memory. By using the content rich multimedia that web has to offer, we are actually not absorbing information effectively due to cognitive overload. Carr paints a grim picture about the contemporary human intellectual mind, and we are not left reassured that this will improve in the days to come.

While Carr focuses mostly on the negative neurological aspects of internet usage on the brain, he does briefly cover the benefits. Internet usage has made us more adept at being able to rapidly find specific information in a heuristic fashion. This ability to quickly find information has also promoted our related skills of skimming and parsing documents for the most relevant bits of information. However, this information swiftness comes at the cost of not being able to remember and contemplate the information that was acquired with such immediacy. The result is an overall superficial understanding.

As I was reading “The Shallows” I found myself wondering what the intellectual landscape will look like in 5-10 years. Our rapacious appetite for new technology, faster internet connections, and innovative hardware/software is only increasing. What will become of the human mind in the future? Does this technological boom mark the end of the western intellectual/philosopher tradition, or will a new internet-philosophy emerge as we continue further in the digital abyss? Could we possibly see an intellectual elite rise to power in emerging/third world nations as they become more connected to the internet?

None of the above questions are easily answered, and any answer that could be formulated would be speculation. The question that I think is the most salient is the latter regarding an intellectual elite gaining impetus in emerging and third world nations. This is one aspect that Carr omitted in his mainly western centric treatise. Does technology have the same effect on the brain of a person from a non-western culture? Would said non-westerner react the same way to the scientific tests describe in “The Shallows” as their western counterparts? We can infer that they would react in a similar way to the tests given that the human brain’s physiologically is the same, but humans are not the sum their brain’s physiology. The culture in which we are born and raised has a dramatic effect on how we absorb, parse, and process information. I think it would be interesting to see how people from other cultures would react to these tests.

Having lived in a Western culture for my whole life, I have grown-up and developed with the computer technology as it was being released. With that being said…I feel that computer/internet technology is a part of my culture, my mind, and in some ways it defines who I am. I think it would be interesting to find out how people in developing nations view computers, the internet, and technology vis-à-vis their traditional cultures. In 5-10 years could the youth of these cultures start to see computers/internet technology as a part of their culture and how they define themselves? I hope that this would be the case. I also hope that Carr’s depiction of the new technologically savvy, yet “shallow” brain, doesn’t destroy rich history of human intellectual thought that has flourished over the past epochs.

If you want to read “The Shallows” you can probably get it out from your local library. You can buy it from Chapters Indigo books (Canada), or Amazon.com. “The Shallows” is also available to purchase directly form the publisher W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Have you read the book? What are your thoughts? Tweet me.


Posted March 8th, 2011

Categories Book Review, Thoughts  Tags , , ,